Ask Sam Mailbag: Jokic, LaVine, Vucevic, Markkanen and more

Sam Smith answers your questions about MVP front runners, the Bulls' performance with a sidelined LaVine, and Markkanen and White's roles
Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets puts up a three point shot against Thaddeus Young #21 of the Chicago Bulls
by Sam Smith
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Paulie Giuntoli:

Who you got as your top 5 MVP contenders this season? Mine, in order, are:
1.Dame 2.Jokic 3.Giannis 4.Kawhi 5.Curry

Embiid, Harden, LeBron, CP3, and Luka have all received support this season, but I don't see them as top 5 because of either Missed Games (Embiid, LeBron), Too much too soon (Luka), Splitting votes with teammate (CP3-Booker), and torpedoing one franchise to force your way to another (Harden). Who you got? Second question: Is Aldridge a Hall of Famer?

Sam Smith:

MVP is more wide open than in some years because of so many injuries and absences. But that's also why I'm considering attendance a significant skill this season. Being there always has been a vital trait, and even more so this season with the injuries and virus absences. It's not always the players' fault, but as good as Joel Embiid has been and his team, he shouldn't be a serious contender missing so many games. Basically a third of the season. Same with LeBron, Anthony Davis and pretty much everyone on the Nets. Also for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George despite how good the Clippers have been. They've always seen the NBA as a part time job. Denver's Nikola Jokic seems to be the general consensus favorite, and I'll go along with that. The MVP, essentially, is a blend of statistics and performance and the standings of your team. Russell Westbrook was an outlier a few years back because of the historic triple double stats with a sixth place team. Denver at fourth is sort of on the edge of the team competitiveness level, but Jokic is so vital and dominant for them. And he plays. I have Chris Paul second despite statistics that don't match the top guys. But he truly changes the arc of teams. Booker basically led a 25-win team every season until Paul came. Paul looked done a few years ago and his large contract seemed a head scratcher. Now he could make that elusive next level difference for almost every team. I've got Donovan Mitchell third. The Jazz is an ensemble, but he's their main guy. He's been out lately and if it's too long he'd fall off, too. But he's become that alpha with the league's winningest team. That's the MVP definition. I've got some Giannis fatigue, and they're worse than they've been and he still can't shoot. So then probably Luka fourth and Lillard fifth. It's tough leaving off Steph Curry having another historic season. But you can't be in the conversation with a .500 team as great as you've been. Julius Randle probably deserves a mention, too. Second answer, no. Nice career, but never particularly elevated teams. But you never know these days with some curious admissions. They look up a guys' stats and see seven All-Star games and averaging about 20 points for a career and decide, hey that's a lot of stuff. To me there are too many guys like that who aren't in.


LaVine Dunks

Silas Marques:

Did the Bulls play better those first three games without Zach? What I've seen is that with Zac, the Bulls were consistently losing games that they shouldn't (but not saying that it was his fault…but who knows…at least I don't), and without him, the Bulls then played 3 really good games. What does that tell me?

Sam Smith:

To watch more carefully. I think we dispelled that better without Zach narrative with the Cleveland debacle Wednesday. But I have this theory about some fans who I understand are frustrated with the losing record. But then often suggest getting rid of someone like LaVine, who is the team's most talented player. The psychology of sports generally is there's such an emotional attachment—fans saying we and us when talking about the team even though they are not on the team payroll—because it ennobles them to be associated with the team, assuming, of course, the team is successful. Thus the wild celebrations with a championship. Not only is the team a winner, but you become a winner, too, by association. But I also believe some fans actually prefer their team to lose. Not because they see themselves as losers, but because there's this fatalism about their lives, that things go wrong so often and so often they are disappointed by their lack of success or the success of others that they secretly want their team to lose, thus also to suffer. So they are not the only ones not to succeed. The team doesn't succeed, either, so they can feel somewhat enriched watching the defeat of the team, its coach, its management. And then enabling them to complain about the team or coach. In effect suggesting they would be better at it. So the team has to continue to fail. Otherwise, those fans would also be losers while the team and its base were just another who succeeded instead of them. Thus trade Zach, dump Vucevic, fire Billy.

On the basketball side, most of these criticisms about Zach usually come down to ball hog/scorer. Just to set the record straight, he averaged more points and takes fewer shots than Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum. All players most fans would love to have in free agency. LaVine averages about a point less than Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal, but they need two to three shots more per game for that point. Again, free agency fantasies. Plus, Zach doesn't get a fair whistle. I'm a fan of NBA officials, but they aren't good with great athleticism. They see a guy get through contact because he's so fast they don't believe it's a factor. Derrick Rose had a similar experience. Sort of like with Shaq. He never got as many fouls called as he should have because he never looked like the contact bothered him. Plus Zach averages at least five assists and five rebounds pe rgame, and Beal, Irving, Mitchell and Lillard do not. Recommendation: Keep Zach.


Lauri Attempts dunk

Bruce Roberts:

The Bulls are like a complex jigsaw puzzle. The result can be a beautiful picture but you struggle to fit the pieces together. How do we place Coby White and Lauri Markkanen with LaVine to get the good result we all want. It seems to me we need Coby and Lauri to be meaningful contributors for the Bulls to succeed. Vucevic and LaVine are great but not enough. How do you see the pieces fitting together when LaVine returns?

Sam Smith:

Uneasily. It's mostly worrisome about Zach since you never can get answers about this Covid protocol stuff for the medical privacy reasons, and then you have no idea when they can play and for how long since they haven't been doing anything while out. And after this short road trip through next Wednesday, the Bulls have fewer than 10 games left. So there'll be nothing permanent about fit and only the edges of that puzzle, like most such puzzles, will be easy: Zach and Vooch. Coby seems to be fitting back in as point guard in a form since the Bulls finally have a post presence in Vucevic. Now that means Coby can be more in a catch and shoot position, which is his strength, because the defense will react to Vucevic. The conundrum is the Bulls still may need either for Coby to become or someone else more of that offensive organizer, though teams have gotten away without that. Perhaps from a small forward as the Bulls did in the title years with Pippen. Which still leaves Markkanen as a question mark. Patrick Williams doesn't seem to have the point guard skills that were advertised, which suggests he could/should be that power forward. I believe Markkanen is a valuable player and the team would regret losing him. He had two strong seasons to start his career and I figure it takes at least one or two to overcome the mess that was created for him last season. But then you come down to costs and trying to fill those other needs this summer in free agency. At least there seem to be more identifiable pieces.


Rajon Rondo dishes

Matt Wicks:

A carousel of point guards have come through Chicago since Rose's tragic ACL injury in 2012, with mixed results. The point guard position today is still being figured out, nearly a decade later. Despite the constant search in the post-Rose era, none really grabbed my adoration like Rajon Rondo. Rondo had a fairly good season for Chicago in '16-'17, his game just didn't translate well to that of our other stars, Butler and Wade. I do recall how excellent Rondo was with the young fellas. It also was the first season where Rondo started to shoot 3's more efficiently. Overall, that team was a mess; however, I still hold onto the belief that in the '17 season's playoffs the Bulls would have upset the Celtics if Rondo had not gotten hurt. Today, Rondo has found an excellent niche as one of the last true archetypical point guards --with an emphasis on communication, passing, playbook intelligence, etc.-- and it has served him well. If Rondo continues his success off the bench, is there any possibility he goes into the hall of fame? The stats aren't great, but his presence on the court transcends statistics.

Sam Smith:

The stats, or lack of them, will keep him out. And lately along with the itinerant career with seven teams since leaving Boston. You could make a case for him being a version of Chris Paul who makes teams better with his presence. Paul will get in because he has the historic stats. Rondo will become a good coach.


Donovan huddles with team

Mark Hammond:

It's a shortened and compressed season and all that, but it is also very possible that the Chicago Bulls will once again win fewer than 30 games and miss the playoffs. There are a lot of questions going forward, like whether the trade made the Bulls better or worse, whether Zach is an Alpha who can carry a team, what to do with Coby and Lauri, what's the plan if the Bulls miss the playoffs and don't get a top four pick, whether any difference making free agent looks at this roster, this staff and this organization and says "I want to be a part of that!" The one thing that has not been questioned is Billy Donovan. Is it possible that Billy Donovan is not the right coach for this team? I think he is the right coach for the media, since he is pretty forthcoming in press conferences, but I am not so sure Jim Boylen wouldn't get just as much (or just as little) out of this squad.

Sam Smith:

I think at least Thad Young would disagree. A coach is only as good as his record, so Billy will have to live with his first ever NBA losing season assuming it comes to that. Without going into Boylen's tenure, Billy may be an A to B coach for the Bulls in the old vernacular used when the Bulls moved onto Phil Jackson. But that's what the team needs now as it did with Doug Collins, someone to bring organization, credibility and a plan. It's difficult to judge it the way the team changed course and turned over half the roster during the season. But despite some hiccups like Cleveland Wednesday, they seem to compete seriously, work well together and embrace teamwork and a basic game plan of ball movement, player movement, passing, etc. They may not yet have the personnel to execute it, but it does seem apparent with the trades and rotation changes the new management wants to retool the roster in its image of a team. I don't believe Billy is any big media favorite for now since none of us has met him or know him much at all because of the Covid restrictions. Though he is very polite and never yells at us like some previous coaches named Thibs. But he seems to resonate well around the NBA, which should be good for the team and its free agency aspirations. Can you give him at least another half season?


Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury poses for a portrait

Longiang Le:

I don't think today's NBA players are worth nearly as much as they are making. Curry is like at over $40 million per year? That to me is nuts. He is not as good overall as Walt Frazier or even John Stockton. He's worth maybe $25 million per year. I think with the proper marketing the WNBA and women's college bball should make more money - fans will start to appreciate more and be willing. To pay more. to see the best women. The best men aren't that good. Giannis is the mvp and he doesn't have the midrange game of wilt, Tim Duncan, Olajuwan. Or Kareem. So Giannis is not worth over $35 million? There should be a way to redistribute that wealth ideally. The best WNBA players like Taurasi and sue bird and Breanna Stewart should get like $2 milllion or maybe $5 million per year. But Taurasi makes under $150k per year. That's insane. The best men's players should get no more than $30 million. Supply and demand/ the marketplace does not always or even often get things right: women were shortchanged for centuries.

Sam Smith:

That darned capitalistic system! That's some tenuous ground you are treading. Fortunately no one from National Review reads this column. Though I believe you'd be a popular figure at WNBA union meetings. Their finances have finally improved somewhat, but it come back to that same argument that has no answer: Why does the football coach at most every university, or at least the wining ones, make more money than probably all the professors combined? And not only from under-the-table booster contributions. Our world is what people will pay for. The NBA players and teams have agreed on a fair system of basically dividing revenues. After all, it shouldn't go just to the investors and management. You should be cheering that labor is getting its fair share. As for dividing that revenue between the NBA and WNBA, that might be a good question for players association leaders Chris Paul and LeBron James. You can reach them through the Suns and Lakers, respectively.


Vucevic, Theis, Brown Jr. defending against the Grizzlies

Ben Arrieta:

Since the acquisition of Vucevic, Theis and company the Bulls have won 5 and lost 10 after Cleveland, the equivalent to a 33% win/loss percentage against 44% before the trade when they had a record of 19 wins and 24 losses. The record shows that no improvement was made after the trade, in fact, the team is even worse now than it was before due to repeated turnovers which coach Donovan doesn't seems to address to the team, poor set plays mostly one on one with Vucevic and Lavine and weak defense, lack of intensity or energy, being outrebounded in offense and defense, missing second chance shots and low percentage shooting. In other words, the team lacks talent, consistency in playing as a team and too many passing errors.

Sam Smith:

Yes, but other than that. I really do believe what they've said about the Vucevic trade being more a first step than a final piece. Yes, I'm sure they hoped—and still hope—it will lead to at least a play-in spot for a chance to get in the playoff tournament. And the very least to expose these players to some elimination games and what that's like. My sense is they (new management and coach) looked at the roster and how they see a team and decided they probably need a point guard, wing player and center. So they addressed center first. I personally believed it was the greatest need. Maybe Coby White becomes that point guard. After all, he still hasn't started a full season of games. Maybe Patrick Williams is that wing player, though I see him more as a stretch power forward. But the NBA is dynamic and ever changing. So I think this is more about getting in position with a roster that can repeat competitiveness than shoring up the roster for a run this season. In Zach and Vucevic, I believe they have something. But we've barely seen them. I know Bulls fans have heard this "patience" mantra for too long now. By making those trades management seemed to agree. At least give them that.


Steven Monk:

Say that I'm an 18 year old high school basketball player with multiple big time college offers who wants to play in the NBA. Trust me, I'm not. Would I be better off playing in Europe for development?

Sam Smith:

No. The problem with going to Europe—not that anyone can now with the virus—as a young American player is those leagues are generally populated by experienced men. So if you take the money and try to run there, mostly it's in practice, which is much more frequent, and then you spend a lot of time watching. Not that it's ideal, but because of the guaranteed contracts and limitations on how long a team has control, NBA teams find themselves forced to play young players often too soon. Not that college does much development, if any, given the way coaches dominate the games and players leave so quickly. But at least you get to play. Teenagers don't often overseas.


Markkanen shoots

Art Alenik:

I have to wonder how much Lauri's time with Boylen hurt him, because... you know, I like blaming everything on Jimbo. I still have hope that Billy can turn Lauri around. It's a long-shot, but maybe not too long. BD's had plenty of experience coaching young kids at FSU, and it seems like he's had a nice influence on Zach's game. It's a tough row to hoe, since he has to get him to where he was pre-Jimbo, and then help him improve from there. It's like the old joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb. (Only one, but the bulb must want to change.) Lauri needs to want it, and I don't mean just team success. He needs to want to be a star! I know that's not in his nature; He's a ‘team guy'. But he needs more than that for motivation. The NBA is too competitive for anyone who doesn't have at least a bit of that mindset.

Sam Smith:

There's no doubt last season was a disaster for Markkanen, but you're correct that you have to rise above that stuff. I'd hate to see Markkanen go. We all see the frustrations with the lack of physical play. But he's just so talented for a seven footer, an excellent teammate and the last guy to cause a problem. Maybe that's part of the problem. You want good guys who say and do the right thing. But then you also want them to be upset when they lose their starting job and take it out on the opposition. Not everyone wants to be a star; but not everyone needs to be a star. I believe the Bulls will be better if they can find a place for Markkanen.


Markkanen shoots jump shot

Tapani Kivini:

Actually based on many games. If LaVine in on court, Markkanen's performance is low. It looks like LaVine do not want to use Lauri?? It has been like this a long time. Even if Lauri makes 2-3 3-point shots, LaVine does not look him on regular basis. There must be some chemistry problem,

Sam Smith:

Disagree. I don't know what the stats are since every time I try to look that stuff up, it begins to flash: Senior citizen, do not continue! I believe Zach does look for Markkanen often even if the conventional wisdom is he's doesn't. See, ball hog! One of the Bulls most frequent plays finds Zach on the wing drawing a double team or trap and then Lauri popping outside off a down screen for a three. Without Zach playing I haven't seen Lauri get that shot much and he's seemed like he's had to try to manufacture more shots for himself without Zach. Zach is not Lauri's problem.


Garrett Temple runs up court

Robert Curtis :

I am amazed at the impact Garrett Temple has had on the team this year. To be completely honest, I was aghast when AKME signed him over the offseason. Zach's Covid absence may be a blessing in disguise as it may jumpstart players like Cobi and Lauri out of the offensive/defensive malaise created by their new roles (since the trade).

Sam Smith:

I believe we're past the blessing in disguise phase, but Temple if not for recently going out for a month may have been one of the best, if unnoticed, free agent acquisitions of the offseason. So that perhaps bodes well for this summer. New management saw that and I doubt the rest of us did. You can see how much Donovan likes him by throwing him right back in to start. It does suggest that Donovan isn't as much into development as getting one of those play-in spots. At this point, I suspect most fans agree. Even if Temple returns next season, he's not a long term figure. But you always need glue guys like him. The balance now is whether to push Temple's playing time to maybe grab a win or two or feature Markkanen and White more to really see where and if and how they fit.


Patrick Williams dunks the ball

Douglas Uding:

"Some have said that Patrick Williams could be the next Kawhi Leonard. OK, we'll see about that......." Now I have time to check this out. So, I see on January 9, LeBron said, "Patrick Williams reminds me of Kawhi Leonard." On March 7 Zach also made the same comparison. And to my surprise Kawhi and Patrick compare very favorably in their first years. Here's a copy and paste from my computer file. As you'll see I just combined the Reb,Ast,Stl,Blk averages and added them up into one number. Kawhi averaged 24 min/game. Patrick 28.5 min/game:

Sam Smith:

Yes, we can only hope. He does have the physical characteristics, and at least with the media the personal ones as well with not much animation or depth. Though teammates say he's not like that with them, playful, fun loving and a joker. Zoom doesn't really give you as close a look as the name suggests. The question with Williams—and we can delay it a few years since he continues to remain 19—is like Markkanen: Is he satisfied just being a good teammate and contributor. Though Williams made a few threes and a drive against the Cavs in that awful blowout earlier this week, he again was defended by the opponent's worst defender and smallest guy—this time Collin Sexton—and never tried to do much. It was Mike Conley a few weeks ago. Teams seem to be recognizing he won't take advantage of matchups. He and the team always say he's doing what is asked and playing the right way, as the phrase goes. But players who have that IT see matchups like that, take it personally, get insulted and want to dunk in your face and then scream at the opposing coach for daring to put a guy like that on him. That's not Williams now. Remember, there are some similar stats now, but by his third season Kawhi was Finals MVP. If only, eh?


Randle drives

Elijah Humble:

The Knicks are a team nobody wants to face, similar to the old Thibs Bulls, and could make it a good series with anybody in the East. Aside from Randle I always thought RJ Barret would be a better pro than Zion, who's interesting in a freak show kinda way but I'm not totally on the bandwagon.

Sam Smith:

And I still think they have the worst roster in the league. Seriously, they're still starting Reggie Bullock, Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton. And Barrett's not a very good shooter. That makes Thibs the coach of the year leader in my race with Quin Snyder and Monty Williams following. Certainly a vote for Nate McMillan as Interim COY. There's always that thing with Thibs about burning out players, and Randle does lead the league in minutes. But barely and with most Knicks far behind in minutes played. Thibs has been misrepresented! He's actually done a great job of blending the playing time with the reserves like Derrick Rose, who's been excellent. The Suns and Jazz have at least one and perhaps two MVP candidates. Maybe Randle sneaks into the conversation, but that's a thin roster. The guy is a heck of a coach to get that production out of that talent. I don't see them winning a playoff round, but good for New York to finally know some competitiveness other than watching Carmelo dribble.


Carter Jr. and LaVine exchange greetings, pound

Michael Mortenson:

This is a very confusing year to be a Bulls fan. It's making my head hurt

Sam Smith:

That sounds right. Because I remember when Wendell Carter Jr. was the future and so was Coby White and Lauri Markkanen until they weren't, and now maybe that at least Coby is and perhaps Lauri to come because now they have Vooch and Theis and they don't need Zach as much until they really need Zach because they couldn't beat the Cavs, Magic and Timberwolves while dominating the Celtics, Nets and Raptors when they were playing slow and big after they were playing small and fast because they needed to play with pace until it was better to occupy a space. Got any of that Advil?

Got a question for Sam?

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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